- Occupation: Statesman, humanitarian, and soldier
- Born: December 22, 1696 in Surrey, England
- Died: June 30, 1785 in Cranham, England
- Best known for: Founding the colony of Georgia
James Edward Oglethorpe was born in Surrey, England on December 22, 1696. His father was a famous soldier and Member of Parliament. James grew up on the family estate of Westbrook with his brothers and sisters. As the son of a wealthy and important man, he received an excellent education and was admitted to Oxford University in 1714.
Oglethorpe left college early to join the British army to fight the Turks in eastern Europe. After fighting for a few years, he returned to England and continued his studies. In 1722, he followed his father and brothers to become a Member of Parliament (MP).
While serving as an MP, one of Oglethorpe's friends was sentenced to debtor's prison. Conditions in the debtor's prisons were terrible. While in prison his friend got the disease smallpox and died. Oglethorpe felt something needed to be done. He headed up a committee that looked into the conditions of the English prisons. He worked to reform the debtor's prison so that fewer people would be sent to prison and the conditions in prison would be improved. The result was the Prison Reform Act of 1729 which improved conditions and allowed for the release of hundreds of debtor's from prison.
England already had a fair amount of unemployment and poverty at the time. The release of so many people from debtor's prison just made things worse. Oglethorpe, however, had a solution. He suggested to the king that a new colony be established between South Carolina and Spanish Florida. The settlers would be made up of debtors and the unemployed.
Oglethorpe argued that the colony would solve two problems. First, it would remove some of the unemployed people from England and give them work in the New World. Second, it would provide a military buffer between Spanish Florida and the productive English colony of South Carolina. Oglethorpe got his wish and his petition to establish a new colony was approved in 1732. The colony would be run by a number of Trustees led by James Oglethorpe.
A New Type of Colony
The new colony was named Georgia after King George II. Oglethorpe wanted it to be different from the rest of the English colonies in America. He didn't want the colony to be dominated by large wealthy plantation owners who owned hundreds of slaves. He envisioned a colony that would be settled by debtors and the unemployed. They would own and work small farms. He had laws passed that banned slavery, limited land ownership to 50 acres, and outlawed hard liquor.
Governor of Georgia
On February 12, 1733, Oglethorpe and the first colonists established the city of Savannah. Savannah became the capital city of the new colony with Oglethorpe as the leader. Oglethorpe planned out the city of Savannah with a grid of streets, public squares, and identical houses for the settlers.
Oglethorpe quickly established good relations with the local Native American tribes. He made peace treaties with them, respected their customs, and kept his word. Oglethorpe also allowed for persecuted minorities, such as the Lutherans and Jews, to settle in Georgia. He took some heat from the other Trustees of Georgia for allowing Jews, but he didn't back down.
War with Spain
Over the next several years, the colony of Georgia came under attack from Spanish Florida. Oglethorpe returned to England to gather military support. Eventually he was made leader of the armies of Georgia and the Carolinas. In 1740, he invaded Florida and laid siege to the city of St. Augustine, but was unable to capture the city. In 1742, Oglethorpe held off a Spanish invasion of Georgia and defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island.
Oglethorpe returned to England in 1743. He was able to recover his fortune when parliament agreed to pay him back for all the personal money he had used in establishing Georgia. He was married to Elizabeth Wright in 1744 and they settled down in the town of Cranham, England. He continued to serve as a Member of Parliament and on the Board of Trustees for Georgia.
Death and Legacy
James Oglethorpe died on June 30, 1785. He was 88 years old. Although many of his utopian ideals for Georgia did not last (slavery became legal in 1751), he helped a lot of the poor and persecuted of England by providing them land and opportunity in the Americas.
Interesting Facts about James Oglethorpe
- Although Oglethorpe did not hold the official title of governor from the king, he is usually considered the first governor of Georgia.
- He never had any children.
- Although Georgia was open to many different people, Catholics were banned from colony.
- The Trustees gave up control of Georgia in 1755 when it became a crown colony owned by the king.
- The battles in which Oglethorpe led Georgia against Spanish Florida were part of a war called the War of Jenkins' Ear. The war began when the Spanish cut off the ear of a British subject named Robert Jenkins.
To learn more about Colonial America:
History >> Colonial America >> Biography